To start with Hemingway is almost as pretentious as riding a bike in Cairo used to be, at least for those who could afford not to. People gave you stares and the cynicism from friends could be discouraging.
Thankfully, the bike-riding phenomenon has increased substantially during the last few years in our two major cities, Cairo and Alexandria, with bicycle groups and shops springing up everywhere. It is now much more accepted as a leisure activity on its own rather than a means to an end for someone who cannot afford another mode of transportation.
And although the hipster in most of us would like to claim that ‘we did it first!’, the visibility of more bicycles on our roads counters the ever-persistent idea that bicycles are impractical in a city like Cairo. It may not bring us a Dutch-like bicycle road system as a national priority, but it can help. Besides, if more than two people in your nuclear family own a car, you have no right to complain of traffic. You are traffic.
Using a bicycle in Cairo can sometimes be deceptively simple; pedestrians are used to delivery bicycles, and to some extent so are cars. On the smaller streets riding a bike is a breeze, since you avoid the kind of traffic that bogs down cars. On the bigger streets it is more challenging but general rules apply; take the right side of the road (but leave some space), deal with the other traffic as if you are a slower, smaller car and above all be mindful of your surroundings.
One thing that is important to mention is: you can bike in most places. Much of the advice available on bicycling in Cairo is about sticking to areas like Masaken Sheraton, Maadi and Katameyya. This is not completely invalid, since some areas are clearly not very bike-friendly. But by all means, do not take this as a general rule.
You do not need to live in Maadi to go cycling, most of the main Cairo neighborhoods will do perfectly fine if you are a little creative. Use common sense and accept that the only way to really know if taking your bike to work is possible is to go out and experiment. Otherwise, you may as well limit yourself to six weeks on the North Coast and be done with it.
Besides keeping your bike in good shape, other commonsense but frequently ignored tips for enjoying a safe two-wheeled ride in Cairo are to never, ever, use your phone while on the road and above all never listen to music. Zooming around on your bike in a city that has few enforced traffic laws to begin with means you have to keep all of your senses ready. You are not running in the park, you are still part of traffic, even if you are a more benign and cleaner form.
Riding your bike around town can turn into a full workout since you need to be ready to carry your bicycle around. A lot. To cross streets, to get over hurdles; basically anything that is not flat ground and needs to be crossed over will see you step down and hurl your bike over your shoulder.
As you gain experience you will learn which roads go up and which down and you will inevitably notice new things that are specific to your new way of experiencing the road. For example, Nasr city to Heliopolis is a breeze because the road slopes downwards, but coming back feels like the Olympics in comparison. Another good tip: make sure you bring lots of water!
Besides the health benefits, using a bicycle can be a proactive way to alleviate some of the problems we have created. Our beautiful city has never been in such bad shape. Its roads are completely congested, its services overwhelmed and its citizens continuously stressed. In any case, dealing with the traffic problem in Cairo will become a top priority soon enough, and who knows what kind of drastic measures will be taken (and they will be drastic: think Mexico City.) So start at your own pace; all you need is a bicycle, a road, and some common sense.